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What Color Are Your Socks

Eric Wilson - 2012

What color are your socks?

Innovation – or creating something new – is a myth.  While I like to believe that everything I come up with is some groundbreaking new idea, it is only taking bits and pieces from multiple places and combining, sorting, and filtering them until they reach a newfound solution you may not have thought of before.  Every great invention and “original” thought came through this same process.

The Constitution of the United States – as forward-thinking and innovative as it was for its time –was not an original document.  It was formed from hundreds of state and local constitutions that were already written.  One of the most-quoted texts at that time – when looking at the letters and commonplace journals of our framers – was Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws,” a book written 40 years earlier and used to create many of the concepts of the separation of powers.

Even a painting may not be considered an original work in the strictest of terms.  Picasso had a goal to paint a city in flames.  He chose a specific medium that he could perform well with and combined it with his mental images (that were directly influenced by his past experiences), and it came together as the “Tragedy of Guernica.”  While we could not reproduce this masterpiece to its remarkable original quality, neither could Picasso without all the bits of imagery and experiences and efforts up to that point in his life coming together. 

The difference between a masterpiece or just being a spectator of one; greatness comes when you take what you already know and apply a newfound concept or solution to a new problem.  It is more simply transforming past concepts into newly focused ideas. It is not what you already know or your “knowledge,” but how you think and learn from what you discover.  In rough terms, it is critical thinking.

I suppose if I am throwing out a term (and saying it is that important), I should elaborate more as to what it is precisely.  The concept of “critical thinking” is not by any means an original idea.  You can trace back debates and philosophies over 2400 years old.  The word itself is derived from roots in ancient Greek.  The word ’’critical’’ derives etymologically from two Greek roots: "kriticos" (meaning discerning judgment) and "kriterion" (meaning standards).  Do you suppose we can “discern” that it may be a “standard” of judgment then?

So what exactly is critical thinking?  My personal favorite definition comes from Richard Paul – the Director of Research and Professional Development at the Center for Critical Thinking.  He defines critical thinking as “thinking about thinking, while thinking in order to think better.”

So what is the big deal?  Don’t we all think?  I decided to get up, get ready, picked out my clothes, and – most of the time – my socks match the rest of my outfit.  The very short answer is yes…but.

Why did I choose the socks I chose?  Well, I already stated I wanted to match the rest of what I decided to wear.  How do I know that these socks match?  Somewhere, at sometime, I learned complementing and contrasting colors.  I learned not to match stripes with plaid, and I learned the difference between a dress sock and a sweat sock.  But why does it need to match?  Obviously because it presents a “put-together” appearance to the world, right?  People take me more serious, and it is expected.

The problem is everyone nowadays is either wearing white, black, or blue socks.  No one is challenging their thinking or questioning the status quo.  Society’s judgment is stifled and narrowed, and the standard has been so suppressed that people are intimidated to think for themselves.

And this is exactly the reason I chose the bright orange-striped socks to go with my plaid pants this morning!

So let me ask you one more time…

What color are your socks?